5 Questions with Jen Rubio, Co-Founder & Chief Brand Officer, Away
In this interview series, we’re giving you a closer look at our esteemed SMWNYC speakers. Next up: Away’s Jen Rubio.
Jen Rubio, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Away, joins the SMWNYC lineup to discuss the blitzing growth of the contemporary travel brand and how creative content and marketing are helping the company inspire a new generation of travelers. We recently interviewed Jen to get her insights on building a disruptive business.
SMW: Your SMWNYC talk will focus on the growth of Away and how the company has evolved into a travel lifestyle brand. Can you talk about this vision?
JEN RUBIO: Before Away launched, luggage companies were talking about their products’ features, but none were talking about the actual travel experience. The difference between a good product and a good brand is emotion, and context is everything. To that end, while the wheels or the zippers on our suitcases are great, what gets people more excited is when they think about what they can do with that suitcase.
Our brand is all about fueling that sense of wanderlust—even if our customers can’t drop everything to travel around the world, they believe they can, and we’ll continue to tell stories that appeal to that.
Ultimately, having a clear and unwavering vision for the story your brand can uniquely tell, and being able to stray from traditional tactics to do it, will help to set you apart.
SMW: What are some of the ways you’re bringing this mission to life in your marketing?
JR: We’re bringing the Away brand to life in a lot of ways. Our customer base includes anyone who travels, so when you’re trying to appeal to that large and diverse of a demographic, it’s important to try a lot of different tactics.
For example, we’ve launched several brick and mortar locations around the U.S., all of which are profitable for the company. These spaces provide another place for us to connect directly with our community, and there’s something really special about the physical experience. Not only can visitors touch and feel our suitcases to see what makes them so different, but they can also attend one of our in-store events (think yoga classes, concerts, and live recordings of our podcast, Airplane Mode).
In fact, the majority of the space in the stores isn’t even dedicated to our products. We don’t view them as luggage stores, but as places to inspire people to book their next trip.
Another thing we tested in 2017 is creative experiential. As an example, we launched a pop-up hotel, Chez Away, at the Amastan Paris during Paris Fashion Week because we realized that no other hotel would be providing all of the amenities a Fashion Week guest might need (or just want!). So, we invented a space that offered everything from in-house manicurists, to in-room beauty products supplied by some of our favorite brands, to a full program of workshops, events, and wellness sessions throughout the week. People loved it because it met a real need, so it’s another proof point for us that identifying what your customers might want is an effective way to drive business decisions.
All of these efforts are centered around the goal of making Away synonymous with more seamless travel, and we’re excited to continue to reach travelers in new and different ways!
SMW: You also recently launched a full-scale publication, called “Here.” Can you talk about how this feeds into your overarching brand mission at Away?
JR: Here Magazine is a print and digital magazine that was created to be a voice for travelers by travelers, offering insider tips and insight on travel that would appeal to anyone—not just those in the market for a new suitcase.
It actually came about, in part, because our customers had come to really trust our guidance on everything related to travel—so much so that they were calling our Customer Service line to ask for suggestions ahead of an upcoming trip! So we saw an opportunity to continue to connect with our customers in a way that provides tangible value.
Previous editions have featured contributions from our friends and fellow travelers (with bylines in Vogue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, and National Geographic). It’s where we’re able to share first-person reporting, travel journals, photo essays, interviews with known travelers, and city guides from local creatives like designer Karen Walker, who gave us a tour of her favorite spots in Auckland.
We also house some exclusive features online, like a guide to bar life in New York City from Stephanie Danler, a conversation with Charli XCX about life on the road, a peek at what Thaddeus O’Neil brings on every trip, and an inside look at Mexico City’s art scene from Alexandra Pechman.
One of my favorite things about our editorial efforts is that they’ve allowed us to connect with such a broad range of travelers. We recently heard from a 74-year-old customer who wrote to tell us that the magazine has “reawakened [her] love for travel, people, and other cultures.”
That type of feedback confirms that we’re doing what we’ve set out to do: inspire people to believe that everywhere is within reach.
SMW: You were an original team member at Warby Parker. What did you learn from growing that direct-to-consumer brand that you’ve applied to what you’re building at Away?
JR: My experience working on Warby Parker’s early content and partnership efforts showed me that a good brand had the ability to disrupt an entire industry. We saw how good storytelling could capture an audience and, ultimately, build an authentic and lasting relationship.
“A good brand has the ability to disrupt an entire industry.” – Jen Rubio, Co-Founder & Chief Brand Officer, Away
Before Away, luggage—like eyeglasses—just wasn’t something people got excited about. From a brand and creative perspective, I truly believed that we had a unique opportunity to take a unique stance to not talk about the features of our bags, but to talk about what you could do with them.
So while we’ve positioned Away as a travel brand (vs. a company that sells luggage) from the beginning, we honestly didn’t know how to do it any other way.
SMW: Building a startup involves navigating many peaks and valleys with some hard lessons along the way. What’s one hard lesson you’ve learned in your career and how has it changed the way you approach your work at Away?
JR: Failure is part of building a business, especially when you’re creating something that doesn’t have a clear playbook to follow like in the case of Away. [My co-founder] Steph and I have learned a lot since we launched—and quickly sold out of—our first suitcase less than two years ago!
Personally, it can be tough to take a step back and not be super involved in every single detail of the business because I’m so passionate about what we’re building! Over time, I’m learning to take a step back and trust the team we’ve built to do their jobs because I know that trying to do everything will only lead to burnout or (worse?) cause me to be less effective at the things I’m really good at.
SMWNYC comes to New York April 24-27, 2018! Hear from Jen Rubio and other founders, entrepreneurs, and marketing executives at our 10th annual conference. Register for your pass today.
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